STRUGGLE | SOLIDARITY | SOURDOUGH
Are banners having a resurgence? Or is it just that since living in William Morris’ birthplace I’ve started seeing them more?
When I say banners, I don’t mean the 728x90 pixel ones, but the soft fabric signs which have their roots in the medieval guilds of Europe. Each guild had its own banner, featuring iconography relevant to their trade and geographic location, which was carried in processions and displayed during meetings.
As the labor movement began to take shape in the 19th century, trade union banners became more common. These banners were used during strikes and other political actions to show strength and solidarity. Walter Crane, who was friend of William Morris, was instrumental in shaping the art direction of many of these banners, which featured Pre-Raphaelite style scenes and bold text.
The largest collection of trade union banners is held by the People’s Museum in Manchester, where they are considered to be a ‘craft’. In 1979 an application to the British Arts Council for banner repairs was rejected on the grounds that these were not ‘art’.It can be argued that the border between arts and crafts has been superficially created to keep the creative output of the upper class separate from the ‘crafts’ of women (working with fabric), indigenous populations (working with with plants), and in this case the working class. Ironically, the workers who wrote, painted and sewed these banners in the best known factory in England, were not themselves unionised.
Recently, or so it seems in my neighbourhood, this craft has found a new lease of life. One possible reason for this resurgence is the renewed interest in the history of the labor movement, particularly in the wake of the global economic crisis of the late 2000s. Artists and activists alike have looked to the past for inspiration, drawing on the visual language and symbolism of trade union banners to create new works that speak to contemporary issues from the Occupy movement to Black Lives Matter.
But, the colourful graphic language of banners are also used as visual shortcut to socialist politics, beyond the realms of protest and organising. The café I’m sitting in right now, which is actually a co-operatively run bakery, has one behind the coffee machine: BREAD FOR ALL. The super seed baguettes made on site are not in fact available to all, but to those who can afford the £3 price.
At the same time, the use of banners in social and political movements around the world has inspired artists to experiment with the form, adapting it to new contexts and audiences. In 2013, Jeremy Deller created a series of banners for an exhibition at the William Morris Gallery, here in Walthamstow. Deller worked with a group of former miners to create new banners that spoke to the legacy of the mining industry in Britain, and the ongoing struggles of working-class communities.
There is a window gallery, also in Walthamstow, which is currently displaying eight silk banners made by the community, facilitated by artist Alisa Ruzavina. I first saw these works being paraded down the high street during a local festival, but they take on a new meaning hung in a white cube without the people and chanting behind them. One image features a proper East End pie shop L. Manze’s which stood on the high street for almost a century, before being recently gentrified into an average chain restaurant.
Overall, the resurgence of trade union banners in contemporary art is a testament to the enduring power of graphic design. As artists and activists continue to adapt and evolve the form, banners will remain a vital part of the visual language of resistance, solidarity and the gentrification of Walthamstow.
John Gorman, Banner Bright: An Illustrated History of Trade Union Banners, New ed., compl. rev., repr.reset and enlarged (Buckhurst Hill: Scorpion Publ, 1986), p 22.
John A. Walker, Art in the Age of Mass Media, 3rd edition (London, England: Pluto Press, 2010), p 23.
Walker, p 201.